A Century-Old Rivalry Is a Must Win Game for Both Programs
Arkansas State and Memphis first met on the gridiron in 1914, 12 years before the birth of Queen Elizabeth. A-State head coach Earl Brannon delivered an 18-6 victory, and I’m pretty sure nobody wore a helmet for that one. The two schools, separated by 76 miles of Delta, would meet 58 more times. This Saturday is the 60th meeting between the two programs.
The 100-year trajectory of both universities and their respective athletic programs is cozily similar, though neither fanbase is very eager to admit it. Since the founding of the American in 2013, Memphis Football has won two conference championships, the last in 2019, when head coach Mike Norvell #15 Tigers reached peak success by appearing in the Cotton Bowl.
Norvell took the open job at Florida State before the Cotton Bowl, leaving Ryan Silverfield to seize the helm.
When Last These Titans Met
“Too many explosive plays,” said A-State head coach Butch Jones when reflecting on last year’s game with Memphis. Final score: 55-50. The Memphis defense clung to an 18 point lead in the 4th quarter, and only survived by batting away a game-winning Hail Mary from Blackman.
Blackman didn’t enter the game until late in the third quarter, relieving Layne Hatcher. The Florida State transfer responded with a furious 306 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Jeff Foreman pulled down 198 yards and a score, and Te’Vailance Hunt added 123 yards and a score.
Seth Henigan was equally as prolific, compiling 417 yards and 5 passing touchdowns. The question is, has either defense made the necessary improvement to put a lid on Henigan and Blackman?
Is Memphis football experiencing a natural decline?
It seems so – if you consider 2019 the benchmark for Memphis football. Sophomore quarterback Seth Hennigan (3300 yards, 25 touchdowns, 8 int in 2021) no longer enjoys the luxury services of super receiver Calvin Austin III, and the offense hasn’t seen a truly dominating RB presence since Darrell Henderson Jr. and Patrick Taylor left in 2019. The Tiger defense, never known as a shutdown unit, looked good against Navy (three turnovers), but the Midshipmen may not be the best indicator. (The same Memphis defense allowed 450 yards of passing and 5 touchdowns to Mississippi State’s Will Rogers in W1).
Coach Silverfied led the team to 8 wins and its 8th straight bowl game in 2020, but in 2021 the team finished 6-6, 7th in the American, and its bowl game with Hawaii was canceled thanks to a spike in COVID-19. Coaches Norvell and Justin Fuentes were coaches of immense impact for Memphis football. It is yet to be determined if Silverfield can carry the torch any farther.
Memphis opened their 2022 season with a 49-23 loss to a solid Mississippi State team and followed it up with 37-13 victory over a struggling Navy team. Neither game is a true measure of the Tigers’ abilities. The game with Arkansas State should provide a more accurate litmus test of the Tigers’ immediate future.
Meanwhile, the Red Wolves Trajectory is on the Rise
When your program is recovering from a 10-loss season, up is the direction bearing the most territory to conquer. One might look at the box score following the Red Wolves’ 33 point loss to #3 Ohio State, but there was a great deal of promise to extract from the defeat. The difference is obvious even to the casual fan.
James Blackman, in his second year as a transfer from Florida State, has emerged as a cool and capable quarterback. His favorite target, Oregon State transfer Champ Flemings, has gobbled more than 100 yards receiving in each of the season’s first two games. The running back squad is deeper than it has been in years, with Iowa State transfer Johnnie Lang and Brian Snead delivering a bruising 1-2 punch. The team’s projected wide receiving leader, Te’Vailance Hunt, hasn’t even seen the field yet thanks to a nagging injury, but he may suit up for Memphis this Saturday.
But the biggest improvement lies on the defensive side. Illinois transfer Eddie Smith has provided a well-practiced hand at safety, and Thurman Geathers and Kivon Bennett are providing plenty of menace at defensive end. While the secondary is still finding its footing, it appears a far more capable unit than last season’s.
Tiger To Tame: DB Quindell Johnson
After compiling 104 tackles and 11 pass breakups last season, Johnson pushed past the temptations of the NFL to return to the Memphis Tigers. Already, Johnson has a pair of picks and 13 tackles. Red Wolves would do well not to challenge Johnson.
Red Wolf to Howl: QB James Blackman
Memphis’ Seth Henigan is a proven commodity behind center. James Blackman, however, is seeking that magic moment to win the hearts and minds of Red Wolves fans. He had a fine game against Grambling, and acquitted himself well against Ohio State. But there is no better place for a Red Wolf to cement his legendary status than at the site of The Bluff City Miracle, where Corey Leonard secured his status on A-State Olympus.
In Case You Forgot About the Bluff City Miracle
Starting senior linebacker Xavier Cullens, a second team All AAC pick from Athlon, was tagged for targeting in the fourth quarter against Navy in Week 2 and will not be available until the second half on Saturday.
The History & The Uni
The Final Analysis
I was at Liberty Stadium for the Bluff City Miracle. I was at ASU Stadium in 2004 when the #25 Tigers scored 21 points in the final 3 minutes to edge Arkansas State. I was there in 2011 when Hugh Freeze destroyed the Tigers 47-3. I was in Memphis when the Tigers humbled the Red Wolves in 2013. Personally, I have sentimental history with this game.
For this season to be a success, this is a must-win game – for both programs. Both teams have been disproportionately tested by opponents whose quality leaned too high or too low. Both entered 2022 eager to erase the sour taste of a disappointing season. Both have started the season with a loss and a victory, and neither wants the other responsible for its second loss.
The difference between the programs is bounce: the Tigers are caroming off 2019’s glorious ceiling, while the Red Wolves are rebounding from its worst season since the early 2000s. Arkansas State is a program on the rise. I predict we see Memphis take it on the chin.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mine.